Rory McIlroy’s life once seemed stuck in fast forward mode. Even now, on the eve of this year’s tournament, he was asked about the prospect of arriving at next year’s tournament as reigning champion.
It would be particularly apt if one of his first chores when the Open heads to Northern Ireland for the first time is to hand back the Claret Jug for safe keeping before bidding to regain it on a course he knows so well.
It is far from impossible. But it will need McIlroy to reconnect with the McIlroy of a few years ago. He will have turned 30 by the time he tees off at Royal Portrush next year. Another four majors will have come and gone, including this Open.
As well as winning once, he has finished in the top five in his last two Open appearances. But he missed the cut at his last major appearance, the US Open last month.
While there is a feeling McIlroy needs to re-assert some authority in the face of a seemingly relentless American challenge, the man himself preaches patience.
“At this point I’m not trying to cement anything,” he said, having been asked about the need to cement his reputation, sooner rather than later.
“Obviously, I’ve had a decent career up until this point. I’ve got a lot of time left to add to my major tally or just tournaments won or whatever it is. It’s hard to win any week on Tour, let alone the four big ones that we get a year.
“I was on a nice run there from 2011 to 2014. I haven’t won one since. But I’m trying. I’m trying my best every time I tee it up. It just hasn’t happened.
“I’ll give it a good go this week. If I were to head to Portrush with a Claret Jug in my possession, I’d obviously be very happy and be very proud to be the defending champion at a golf course that I know very well while playing in front of home fans.
“Jeez, if it all worked out like that this week, I’d be one very happy man heading out of here.”
McIlroy has plenty of history at Carnoustie too. He took a while yesterday to recognise one reminder of 2007, when he secured the silver medal as leading amateur. Back then he was left to play behind the 18th green with Paddy Harrington, Padraig’s then three-year-old son. “I just saw Paddy today walking with Padraig. He’s massive now!” said McIlroy yesterday. Paddy’s father was, of course, involved in a play-off 11 years ago, the result of which you might presume McIlroy was glad about. He was actually torn.
“Sergio (Garcia) was one of my favourite players growing up, and he hadn’t won a major at that point,” he said. “Obviously, Padraig is from back home. I honestly didn’t know who I wanted to win at that point. I was okay with either winning. It was tough the way Sergio lost.”
It’s a slightly more serious business for McIlroy now. A relative unknown under a mass of tumbling curls in 2007, he went on to light up the game for a period, winning four majors in three years in his mid-20s. Only the Masters title continues to elude him when it comes to majors.
“That wasn’t the norm,” he cautioned. “That wasn’t my normal level. That was above my normal level and then you sort of go back down, and then you build yourself back up again.
“Everything finds its balance. Even the 14 that Tiger won, that was him at the peak of his powers. That was him at his 100 per cent best. We’re not all going to be like that every single time. There’s going to be times where you do struggle with this and with that.”
He has already negotiated a challenge as tough as avoiding the Barry Burn: showering the saintly Jordan Spieth, someone cast as the new Rory and one of his main challengers for the Claret Jug, with sufficient praise.
“I was going to say a better person than he is a golfer, but that sounds like I’m discrediting him,” said McIlroy. “He’s a wonderful person. As good a person as he is a golfer, I guess, because he’s obviously one of the best players in the world and one of the best players that’s come out over the last few years.
“But I think his upbringing, his mum and dad, his siblings, just everything about him is class. I’ve gotten to know Jordan a little bit more over the past – I guess (over) the past couple of years. Our partners have got pretty close, Annie and Erica.
“So we spent a little bit more time together, and the more you get to know him, the more you realise he is the real deal on and off the golf course.
“He’s had a fantastic start to his career, and he’s probably the one guy that, whenever I see him on the board, I look out for more than the rest because it doesn’t matter what he does, where he hits it, he’s so tenacious, and he gets it done.”
It’s the kind of tribute once heard many times in praise of McIlory. The hope is it’s heard again.